Manju was abducted and forced to work for a year as a child soldier in Sri Lanka at the age of 17, one of hundreds of thousands of children who participate in armies and armed groups in more than 30 countries around the world. The problem is most critical in Africa, where up to 100,000 children are estimated to be involved in armed conflict. Child soldiers also exist in Afghanistan, Burma, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, though international law sets 18 as the minimum age for all participation in hostilities. In Sri Lanka, children as young as nine were abducted and used in combat by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during its conflict with the Sri Lankan government, between 1983 and 2002. Children—most aged 14 or 15 and over 40 percent girls—were used for massed frontal attacks in major battles, and some between the ages of 12 and 14 were used to massacre women and children in rural villages. Others were used as human mine detectors, assassins and suicide bombers. A ceasefire was implemented in February 2002, this did not halt the LTTE’s use of child soldiers. Children were then more likely to be forcibly recruited: people saw no reason to give their children to the LTTE if they did not perceive themselves to be at risk from the government, and so the LTTE resorted to abduction. In 1994, one in 19 child recruits was abducted. By 2004, only one in 19 was a volunteer.
I was told that my father left home as soon as I was born. He does not come home even now, but I meet him once in a while—outside home. Father and mother separated over a verbal quarrel. He never hit my mother in front of me. They only argued. One day they had a big argument and he left home. After he left my mother and us, his children, I heard that he had married again. He has children by that woman, they say. He does not come home. They are also living close by. He talks to me sometimes, but he does not come home.
When I was young my mother went away to find a job. My mother’s relatives looked after us. My mother was very good at artificial flower making and I, too, liked that. I used to sit by her side and watch her making flowers. I too can make flowers. I like cooking, too; even here I help and enjoy cooking. We, too, have our own house. We built this home, it is enough for us. I liked to go to school. I studied up to the ordinary level. There were many teachers. I liked all my teachers. Nobody hit me. They scold us to make us study well. I don’t mind that. Sometimes they used to hit, even that I think it’s for our own good. I played netball. I go for practices and enjoy playing.
Today I am here. Why? Not because I wanted to join, it is no fault of my own at all. I was forcefully taken away into the movement. One day three of us wanted to go to my grandmother’s village. My cousins—the three of us got ready to go. While walking along the road there was a three-wheeler. We wanted the driver to take us to that village, the driver agreed. After a while he drove us into an unknown place and kept us locked in a house, later he forcefully took us to a camp. We told our story but nobody listened. They thought we came to join the movement willingly and now we are making up stories. We were then taken to a training base.
There were some others like us who were taken in forcefully. Very often I got hit. They tried in every way to make me stay and I was forced into training. The training was for four months. I was not assigned for fighting. I have to take all the details of any group moving out for fighting, details of all the arms taken, what kind and who is taking it, etc. For the four months I underwent training, I did only the basic physical training. It was difficult for me. Maybe because I didn’t like anything there—I hated everyone and everything. There was another one who also wanted to run away. One of the three of us who were taken fell sick and she was sent home. I was sad and I used to cry and wished that I too became sick. I fell sick but I was looked after by doctors, the treatment was good. I was kept there and looked after. They gave medicines. I was very unhappy and cried.
When we do physical training if you don’t do properly they hit you. I have got hit by some leaders, but some were good. As we go along and if we do well they give more training. I was given a dummy rifle. I had to carry it all the time and look after it like a real one. I was not chosen to be given a real rifle—maybe they knew I was not happy there. Twice they gave me a rifle for my own protection they said. That was when I had to follow a group on a fighting mission. I have never been in the front line or even in the middle—I go only to record the situation. I was given a bag with a pen and a book. There were teams in that group with a leader in charge. The arms given are according to their experience, like T56 and other very sophisticated guns. The magazine rounds, even the cleaning material given out, I had to record.
When someone goes out for a hero’s death, they are honored. I feel sorry for them. Many die and never come back. Some have come back after performing dangerous missions. They are then promoted and become respected. I have never shot anybody. I don’t know why that I can’t kill. I made up my mind not to kill anyone. I have had to carry dead bodies. I carry these bodies usually in the dark. Yes I was filled with fear, fear that I can’t talk about. Fear…Fear…Fear…What could I do? I carry the body on my shoulder, it is difficult and I walk crying all the way.
I was given a uniform, jeans, shirt and shoes. That was all right. You need comfortable clothes while you are doing all those difficult and terrible jobs. Two women gave me training. I learnt to shoot, but did not shoot anyone, not even an animal. All the time we are trained. We are trained up to the day of the hero’s death. That is also training, that is you go out on a dangerous mission. We get different types of food. Bread, lentils, rice and curry. Different curries are given on different days. We have got even nice apples in the middle of the jungles. When we are on the job, water is brought to us for drinking purposes. Water was difficult to get. Somehow or the other we managed. We used water very carefully. I was not given a cyanide capsule. Only the fighters get cyanide and they have to go through one-year training at least. I did not want to be a fighter and I never got the cyanide.
There is a day when you can see the relatives and that day is the hero’s day. On that day my mother’s sister came to see me. I was happy to see her and I was sad also. I cried and cried. My mother came to see me in the camp three times. They do not allow us to see them without any reason. She was sent away and I cried.
I found another friend like me who wanted to escape. So two of us used to get together and plan how we could get out of the place. This of course was in my mind from the day I was taken in forcefully. She has been closer to the camp than to where I lived. One day finally we ran away. We walked and walked and finally reached a village. When people asked us we said we were going home on leave. So we escaped. My friend knew how to get to her place, as she was close by. We did not want to go together beyond that. I spent the night with her people and started on my escape. I really didn’t know how to manage. All the while I asked her to escape now I made up my mind to tell the truth to someone and get help. I met an elderly woman, she looked somewhat friendly. I went into her hut. I told her the truth. She took pity on me and agreed to hide me till I could escape. I stayed with her. I never went out during the daytime. This kind lady was good to me. She cared for me. She understood my suffering and really cared for me. I will never forget her—she could have sent me out because her life was in danger—yet she cared for me. I wrote a letter to my mother and one day my mother came and took me.
I am very worried about my mother. We have finished all the money. Everything from the bank is over. My mother is sick now; she’s at home. She cannot look after me. I have no one except my mother. She had a big tumor and she was operated. Now she is a sick person and stays at home. She has to go for another operation. The stitches after the operation have come out and she is always in pain. She can’t work, it’s difficult for her now. When the time comes for me to leave this center I have no problem to get back home. Relations are all okay, but not all, some are good, but some don’t like us. My sister and her husband are living a happy life.
For my future maybe I can start sewing to earn my living. The few good things I learnt there is how to write and maintain records. This helped me to keep my mind occupied. This helped me to keep away from direct fighting, which I hated. Physical training also helped me somewhat. I got fever and that type of shivering fever still continues and even now I’m suffering from fever. I was in hospital, they said I was better and sent me back but today I feel feverish and shivering comes off and on.
I had no romantic involvement, I didn’t have a single boyfriend, and I am not going to have a boyfriend. I will marry someone who is proposed to me. I want to study; I don’t know how to fit in. But I’ll try. Everyone knows that I did not go on my own and I also came back by surrendering. I cannot really understand why this misfortune fell on me. This has changed my life entirely.
Narrative as told to the Quaker United Nations Office, 2001.